Helstar – Nosferatu (1989)
Helstar is suspiciously similar to Manilla Road on first glance – constantly boosting the speed and intensity of their albums throughout the ’80s, falling off afterwards, reviving recently to some commercial and critical success. Then you notice they’re from Texas, and suddenly it hits you – this is a very different band with its own unique style and motivations! Helstar adds a bit of a shred flair to the standard “power-thrash” formula, making for acrobatic results and musically ornate songwriting within short, punchy songs.
I’d go so far as to describe this as sort of a neoclassical metal album, although it doesn’t go as far into that ‘genre’ and its stereotypical (Yngwie) excesses (Malmsteem) as it could. This element is still quite prominent, though – most obviously, the guitars play ornate, but generally consonant riffs; often shaped like scale progressions and mixed with the stereotypical speed-thrash strum to create an interesting and unique effect. The other half of this is James Rivera, who sings (and exclusively sings; as a dedicated vocalist that doesn’t pull double duty on other instruments) counterpoint to his instrumental backing in a fashion remniscent of John Arch era Fates Warning. His tone could use some work, but you can’t fault him for his ambitions, and his contributions are understandably a big draw to the content of Nosferatu. The other musicians play a supporting role, adding some variety to the album but not particularly reaching my attention. It doesn’t help their cause that the album’s production is a bit lacking, while everything is clear, some more budget could’ve lead to a more intense recording that does the thrashy bits justice.
The actual songwriting on this album makes a good case for the ability of a strong concept to drive musicians to new heights of ability and organization. Compare the first half to the second half; the first is a conceptual work based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while the second half is merely a collection of unrelated tracks. I’m of the opinion that the first half generally has stronger songwriting, pulling on stronger and more coherent ideas and linking them more effectively, even between tracks. While the other half has some strong tracks, I don’t think as much effort went into its content, and they tend to sound a bit awkward in comparison. The counter to this general would be the existence of many strong non-concept albums, but when your album is named Nosferatu, anything too unrelated to vampirism seems a little peripheral even at its best.
Still, Helstar offers the listener a well constructed and planned collection of songs on Nosferatu, and the extra speed and thrash influence supposedly makes this unique in their discography, and possibly your collection if you don’t dwell in the overtly neoclassical side of metal.
Highlights: “Baptized in Blood”, “Perseverance and Desperation”, “Swirling Madness”